Cycling the Canal du Midi
Across Southern France from Toulouse to Sète
By Declan Lyons
Guide to cycling the Canal du Midi in southern France, 240km from Toulouse in the Haute Garonne to Sète on the Mediterranean Coast. The flat, picturesque route is divided into five stages, each around 50km long. Includes detours to sights close to the canal as well as longer excursions, including Narbonne, Minerve, Carcassone and Béziers.
SeasonsSuitable all year round. Busier and hot in summer, but with lots going on; ideal temperatures but higher average rainfall in spring and autumn; quietest in winter, but with Christmas markets and fairs.
CentresToulouse, Carcassone, Beziers, Sète
DifficultySuitable for all abilities - flat and car-free along the canal with optional slightly hillier excursions by road if desired. Described in five stages to fit within a week's holiday.
Must SeeHistoric towns and cities: Ancient Greek Agde, Roman Narbonne, Toulouse, the 'Rose City', Carcassonne's 12th-century fortified Cité. Real French culture of La France Profonde, including myriad local festivals. Varied countryside with a wide range of animals and plants.
This guidebook describes a 240km cycle ride along the length of the Canal du Midi in southern France. Starting at Toulouse in the Haute Garonne and finishing at Sète on the Mediterranean Coast, the route is divided into five stages of about 50km. It is a flat, car-free and picturesque route mainly on the towpath, and is suitable for all abilities.
The guide is written for those who want to explore the canal and visit attractions along the way. There are lots of optional detours to sites of interest near the canal, as well as six longer excursions, including fortified Carcassone, Roman Narbonne, Vendres lagoon and the Portiragnes marshes. Detailed route descriptions are crammed with additional information about points of interest passed, and 1:200,000 scale maps clearly show the route for each stage of the way.
Begun in 1666 the Canal du Midi is one of the world's most picturesque waterways and a World Heritage Site. This is 'La France Profonde', a region rich in history and culture, as seen in the grand homes and chateaux that grace the water's edge, and the fascinating Cathar strongholds of Carcassone, Lastours and Minerve.
Regions of the canal
Cycling the Canal du Midi
When to go
Getting there and getting around
Food and drink
What to take
Cycling the towpath
Health and safety
Money and communications
Using this guide
The Canal du Midi
Stage 1 Toulouse to Port Lauragais
Stage 2 Port Lauragais to Carcassone
Excursion 1 From Criminelle lock to St-Ferréol reservoir
Stage 3 Carcassone to Homps
Excursion 2 From Trèbes to Lastours
Excursion 3 From Homps to Minerve
Stage 4 Homps to Béziers
Excursion 4 To Narbonne and Port la Nouvelle
Stage 5 Béziers to Sète
Excursion 5 To Vendres salt lagoon
Excursion 6 Across Portiragnes marshes to Sérignan
Appendix A Stage planning tables
Appendix B Accommodation
Appendix C Useful information
Appendix D English–French glossary
Appendix E Further reading
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24th Oct -
Trains are beginning to get back to normal. There have been bus transfers between Carcassonne and Narbonne since last Tuesday. Some trains are now travelling that line and they should be back to normal by Monday. Note that those planning to use the train on this stretch of line should check in advance until Christmas to make sure that there isn't a bus substitute for continuing works - buses don't have room for or take bikes.
The path too is recovering but there is still mud and water lying on it and in the surrounding area from Carcassonne to Béziers.
The path between the bridge after Portiragnes and Agde is no longer recommended for cycling. Instead, follow the asphalt track as it swings right. Shortly afterwards, come to a cross roads with a road going left from the main road as you travel towards the beach (plage). Cross the main road and follow a sign for Vias. Keep following signs for Vias as this minor road snakes through marsh, campsites and open fields. You pass Port Cassifieres on your right. (Please take the spelling from the book as there is an accent grave on the first e). Continue taking a right turn following signs for Vias. You eventually come to a small track to the left that leads to the Libron works. Continue towards Vias crossing the bridge over the Libron. Pass the Europark on your left until you reach a junction which you go through towards the old stone bridge at Vias.
The get from Vias to Agde, continue on the road on the southside of the canal. Cross over a bridge over a canal leading to the Mediterranean. Swing right and follow this small road as it twists and turns before heading north. Join a main road turning right (D32E12), pass under a bridge carrying a major road (D612) and veering slightly right come to a cycle path which will eventually lead to the banks of the Hérault river. Follow these upriver to the main bridge into the town and continue further if you wish to see Agde's round lock.
16th Oct -Please be aware due to severe floodings the Canal du Midi canal towpath is not cyclable and is potentially very dangerous for the next few days at least.
The definitive English language guide to this fascinating canal ride
Eight years on from the publication of the original, an updated version of the definitive English language guide to this fascinating canal ride is very welcome. Conveniently beginning in Toulouse, the Canal du midi passes through a region with a tumultuous history and, as ever in France, distinct identities and cuisines. Declan Lyons’ guide will not only allow you to plan and keep you on track, it will also inform and enthuse. Yet, take note of his advice; there’s more to following a canal than might be expected and things can get very hot.
The Canal du Midi is a wonder of early modern engineering, pre-dating most UK canals by a century. Work commenced in 1677 to connect the Haute Garonne, at Toulouse, with the Mediterranean Sea, at Sète. As the
author says, the chief engineer, Pierre Paul Riquet, did not intend to create a fabulous 240km cycle track, but did a pretty good job. A route for the touring cyclist, not the racer; to be savoured rather than rushed.
On that note, there is very good guidance on the condition of the towpath for cycling. Some sections are barred to cyclist - though few and far between - and some others are rough and offer some challenging riding, despite being designated as cycle routes. Other sections have a very good surface. Sometimes sudden availability of funds may lead to major improvements. Updates, when reported, can be found on the relevant page on the Cicerone website. In the meantime, you’ll need to follow the author’s advice on what bike to take and when to follow road alternatives.
Rail connections along the way seem to be pretty good, so getting to and from Toulouse and Sète, or to a nearby airport, should not be a major problem. More significant will be the time of year to ride the route. Autumn or spring may be better than summer. However, all that useful advice can be found alongside details of accommodation, cycles on trains, mosquitoes, dealing with the heat and, of course, where to find that plat de jour and vin rouge at lunchtime. Appendices include distance charts and a contacts for all sorts of
accommodation, cycle repair shops and tourist offices. Together with Cicerone’s mapping, your 3!$.95 would
seem to bring you everything you need in one place; one that will fit into a jersey rear pocket or atop a bar bag with ease.
The final appendix covers further reading. Prominent here are books on the Cathars. The canal passes through towns and villages that predate it by many centuries. Some had their origin in the ancient past, but many became victims of a brutal crusade undertaken by the Papacy and the French monarchy against Cathar heretics during the middle-ages. Even after this, the region was torn apart during the hundred Years War between France and England. Together, the crusade and the war helped cement French authority in the south of France. Yet, even today, the Midi is different! You’ll get views of mountains, scrubby garrigue and marshy lagoons… as well as following a fine piece of industrial archaeology.
To aid exploration, the author does not stick to the towpath bee-line. Six excursions are included in the guide, taking in nearby sites, for example to Narbonne and Port-la-Nouvelle (82km). Narbonne was a Roman town, but the author spends a paragraph on Charles Trenet, a singer born there. For some, his songs embody happy sunny days in the south of France. A very appropriate point to recommend this guide and wish you a happy, relaxing, easy-going journey.
Reviewed by Steve Dyster, Seven Day Cyclist
A gold mine for any traveller
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Declan Lyons has a lifelong passion for cycling and touring. He was bitten by the bug when, as a teenager in the 1960s, he explored the wilds of Connemara on a rusty three-speed Rudge bicycle. Since then he has toured extensively in Ireland and further afield, including regular trips from the Channel to the Mediterranean. Declan is an advocate of cycle touring – taking time on his cycles and relishing the nature, history and daily life all around. He has toured the region between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean extensively.View Articles and Books by Declan Lyons